On the July cover of Elle UK, Pharrell Williams traded out his big ol’ hat of late for a Native American-style headdress — and swiftly issued a public apology once the image began making its way around social media. As has happened so many times with the fashion world “reinterpreting” indigenous garb as a fresh, new look, many didn’t take kindly to the blatant cultural appropriation.
Another celeb in a headdress just makes me tired. How many ways can I/we explain why it's wrong and hurtful? I've run out. @Pharrell
— Dr. Adrienne K. (@NativeApprops) June 4, 2014
But what’s so wrong with Williams donning the head piece, you might be wondering? He and the magazine’s stylists were just having some fashion fun, right? Sure, that was probably their intention, to create a visually arresting cover image to help move some magazines off stands, but decent intentions don’t excuse the wrongness of playing dress-up in ceremonial regalia you (probably) have no knowledge of or authentic connection to.
As Caroline and I discussed in our podcast on cultural appropriation and Halloween costumes, dressing up in the traditional clothing and sacred garments of other cultures, such as a Native American warbonnet in Pharrell’s case, mindlessly dissolves an entire people’s history in a meaningless object used to play dress-up. As Adrienne K. of Native Appropriations explained in regard to a (blessedly short-lived) white hipster trend of wearing ornamental headdresses:
“‘Playing Indian’ has a long history in the United States, all the way back to those original tea partiers in Boston, and in no way is it better than minstral shows or dressing up in blackface. You are pretending to be a race that you are not, and are drawing upon stereotypes to do so. Like my first point said, you’re collapsing distinct cultures, and in doing so, you’re asserting your power over them.”
Speaking of power, let’s not forget that whole thing about European settlers’ intentional erasure of cultures, customs (including warbonnets) and populations of more than 500 different tribes that makes that kind of “playing Indian,” as Adrienne K. terms it, even more offensive and wrong. When non-Native Americans sport headdresses in an attempt to be fashionable, it ignores this horrifying history that still resonates throughout Native American communities to this day, simultaneously objectifying, exoticizing, and in Elle UK’s case profiting, off a group of people.
Oh, and about those warbonnets: they were worn much less than you might expect judging by stereotypical depictions of Native Americans on film and in costume shops and are just one of many kinds of traditional Native American headdress, including the far more commonly worn roach headdress, also called a porcupine headdress. In fact, warbonnets were exclusively worn by warriors and chieftains in the Great Plains region for ceremonial purposes. The feathers typically came from golden eagles and signified various acts of bravery and honor, and it wasn’t until tribes were forced to move West and commingle that more Native American men who came from other regions began wearing them as well…for the pleasure of white tourists.
So to those who may cry “stop fashion policing!” in response to the Elle UK backlash, I say, “check your history, and come up with something all your own!” Besides, if there’s anyone who knows how to get creative with headgear, it’s Pharrell.
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